Syd Thrift’s trades for pitchers Mike Dunne, Doug Drabek and Brian Fisher fueled the Pittsburgh Pirates’ return to respectability, but his best acquisition may have been a 42-year-old righthander who has never pitched in a major league game.
When Thrift signed Ray Miller in the fall of 1986, he didn’t cost the Pirates another player or even a draft choice. But they did acquire perhaps baseball’s most successful pitching coach, the man who turned out five 20-game winners and two Cy Young Award winners in nearly eight seasons with the Baltimore Orioles.
Miller had only a 60-65 record in 10 minor league seasons, but he might be baseball’s professor of pitching.
“If you want to be the best, and we do, you’ve got to get the best people, and Ray Miller is the best pitching coach in baseball,” said Thrift, the Pirates’ general manager. “He has a thorough knowledge of pitching . . . he is an excellent teacher with great credibility.
“He has a tremendous capacity for work. I’ve never seen him when he wasn’t thinking about pitching or baseball. Last year, on the last day of a 162-game season, he was ready to go to the Florida Instructional League the next day and work with our young pitchers.”
Miller has endured only one major setback in his major league teaching career, an ill-timed tenure as the Minnesota Twins’ manager from June 1985 through September 1986.
It was Miller who put in place many of the programs, and many of the players, who led the Twins to their 1987 World Series championship, but it was successor Tom Kelly who received most of the credit for their remarkable title.
Perhaps that is why Miller is so eager to reestablish himself as a master teacher.
“When I came to Pittsburgh, there was no thought of managing here and I let (Pirate Manager) Jimmy (Leyland) know that right away,” Miller said. “He’s the best manager I’ve ever been around, the best prepared.
“I just want to go out and put my name back up there again. I don’t think getting fired hurt my credibility in baseball at all. There’s no security in baseball and there never has been.”
Leyland takes security in the knowledge he couldn’t have a better coach for a youthful staff that was so inexperienced when Miller took over last season that he became part coach, part nursemaid.
“There are a lot of pitchers here that have a lot of ability but just don’t have the experience,” said Drabek, who pitched eight no-hit innings against the San Diego Padres on May 8. “Ray doesn’t yell or scream and he has super patience. Even when I was 1-8 last year, he was never negative with me, no matter how badly I’d pitched. He always found something positive to work on.
“You become real confident in him and you begin believing in what he says, and that gives you confidence on the mound. All of a sudden last year, because of him, I started taking more out on the mound with me besides a fastball and a slider.”
Baseball’s “in” pitch for several years was the split-finger fastball, but the changeup is now the hottest “out” pitch, and Miller is a big reason why.
Miller’s pitching credo, whether he has a young staff or an old one, remains simplistic and the same: Work Fast, Change Speeds, Throw Strikes.
Many of his pitchers proudly wear T-shirts bearing their mentor’s philosophy.
“If you learn to change speeds, you can become a winner,” Miller said. “And it’s talent more than it is age. You don’t have to wait until you’re 35 and losing your fastball to learn how to change speeds.
“Nobody talks about the age of the Mets’ staff, but (Dwight) Gooden and (Ron) Darling were just kids when they won two years ago. You just have to be able to throw hard, because if you can’t throw hard, there’s nothing to change speeds off.”
Miller keeps detailed charts and graphs of his pitchers’ progress, and Thrift said, “He is so thorough, he can tell you on the last day of the season exactly how many pitches he’ll want each pitcher to throw on the first day of spring training.”
But Thrift said there is more to the Miller method than just superb preparation and changing speeds.
“To be a quality pitching coach, you have to think like a hitter and he does,” he said. “He understands pitchers, but he also understands hitters, and that’s just as important.
“Will he manage again? I don’t like to predict or forecast. But the pitching coach is a manager anyway, because has to manage 10 pitchers, and that’s almost half your team.”
“Sometimes in the future I’d like to manage again, but I like it here in Pittsburgh,” Miller said. “I think I’ve got a goldmine here.”
“I just know that Ray Miller is going to be managing in the major leagues again . . . soon,” Leyland said.